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Could Rome Have Had an Industrial Revolution? (medium.com)
54 points by stablemap 12 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

The article doesn't mention the printing press. The invention of the press fueled explosive growth, because printers printed handbooks on anything and everything, and so knowledge became cheap and widely available. My personal view is the IR started with the printing press.

We're in the middle of a second IR caused by the internet, for analogous reasons.

Aling with easy distribution of ideas is an open enough political climate to foster such transference. Most governments from Rome to the Rennaisance were trying to lock down society to as little change as possible, such as routine wage & price controls, guilds ruling trades, many monopolies granted, etc. Luckily lots of wars kept shaking Europe up.

Also, the wealth surplus to allow men of means to experiment, the tech of working metal to decent tolerances in bulk quantity, and the mass production of paper.

I heard a great argument once, that I can no longer find on the internet. That it was the cannon that lead to the industrial revolution. The first cannons were awful. Short range, extraordinarily expensive to build, and just as likely to kill you as the enemy. There was an arms race in Europe to develop much stronger and cheaper metal. And once that exists, steam engines are much more practical.

I'm curious to hear if people can confirm this, but it sounds like a 'Gladwellian' type of argument, for lack of a better way of putting it.

Cannons developed from church bell technology. It's no coincidence that the first cannons were bell shaped.

The printing press was invented in 1440, the steam engine in 1712.

Analog to the ancient times would be the libraries of Alexandria, Pergamon, Constantinopel and later the Vatican, and probably many smaller ones before. The name Byblos is pretty significant, too. But even today, word of mouth is going strong. In terms of language, riding on horse and camel has had an exponential effect over river shipping on the areal expansion and consequent interchanges.

Libraries don't hold a candle to the printing press for dissemination of knowledge. It's hard to overstate the importance of the press.

Yes, but we were initially talking about Rome.

> The article doesn't mention the printing press.

I believe the novel does. By the time of the story, the Romans have advanced as far as television.

More generally, historical shifts are typically a collection of necessary but insufficient causes.

So to explain the background:

1. Helen Dale, a novelist, has written a novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, of which the first book has recently been released[0].

2. It's set in an alternative history, during the time of Augustus.

3. Helen Dale believes an author's intepretation of her work is more meaningful, in a critical or literary sense, than a critic's. So she included an "Author's Note" in her novel, explaining the background leading to its creation.

4. The Author's Note was republished by the Cato Institute on their libertarianism.org website[1].

5. This essay is a reply to the Author's Note.

I've been hosting Helen's website for more than a decade. She is very, very, very smart and a damn good writer. She's also the right person for the right story.

I think you're going to hear a lot about this book in the coming year.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Wicked-Book-One-Rules/dp/0994...

[1] https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/authors-n...

Has anyone read a good book on why the Industrial Revolution did happen? What were the necessary precursors, politically, economically, technologically, scientifically, culturally, before you start trying to automate all the things?

> Has anyone read a good book on why the Industrial Revolution did happen?

It will not answer your question 100% (imho there's no definitive answer for this question), but I pretty much enjoyed Carlo Cipolla's "Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700" (https://www.amazon.com/Before-Industrial-Revolution-European...) where he presents Europe's pre-industrial age economy. By comparing it with what followed after ~1780 you can make yourself a pretty good idea about what might have caused the industrial revolution, or, to put it in better terms, what were the differences between England and the rest of the countries in continental Europe.

As I remember it Italy might have had a good chance of achieving it in the 1500s-early 1600s if it weren't for the disastrous Italian Wars (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Wars) and then the equally disastrous epidemics that had a huge adverse effect on Northern Italian cities in the first half of the 17th century. For example the 1630-1631 plague epidemics reduced Venice's population by 33% (46,000 deaths out of a total population of 140,000), Milan's by 47% (60,000 deaths out of a total of 130,000), Verona's by 61% (33,000 deaths out of a total of 54,000) and Cremona's by 38% (17,000 out of a total of 37,000). The nascent Northern Italian textile industry basically just collapsed after this, which freed the way for England's textile proto-industry to dominate.

There's so much history in between that it's easy to cherry pick your favorites:

* New economic and political philosophies(merchantilism, Machiavelli's works, Magna Carta)

* Theological developments(Islam, Protestantism) and the various resulting conflicts as motivators for modernity

* Access to New World flora and fauna(new crops and livestock) increasing the ability of the nascent industrial state to support large populations at a lower cost

* Refinements to math and science that built on or revised ideas from antiquity(e.g. Newtonian physics, cell theory)

* Advanced craftsmanship in certain crucial precursor technologies like lenses, gears, etc. A lot has been made of how the industrial world started operating on a fast-paced timetable, but the Romans had no pocketwatches.

One factor often overlooked is energy availability (the link touches it somewhat). EDIT: Wikipedia on coal, for instance, states "The development of the Industrial Revolution led to the large-scale use of coal" - rather than coal being the enabler what, with forests probably being exhausted at the time...

Important in automation is work done by a machine, enhancing or replacing labor. Machines require energy, both for running, and for construction and processing of the material in their constituent parts. Energy was present in the English Midlands in the form of coal. By burning this coal in a glorius steam engine, of which models were improved on from the 1600s and onwards, wonders arose.

Perhaps this book on economic growth would be of interest on the importance of energy for economic growth: The Economic Growth Engine, by Ayres and Warr. Excerpt at https://books.google.no/books/about/The_Economic_Growth_Engi...

I think that energy availability is overlooked because it doesn't seem to be an especially proximate cause of the Industrial Revolution. Many other countries have coal. People in the UK knew of the existence of coal for centuries (millennia?) before the IR. A lot of times and places had fossil energy stores available in the abstract. Why did it take so long before any people performed mechanical work with fossil fuels, and why did the first outbreak of industrialization occur in the UK instead of (e.g.) China or Germany?

Yeah, it is an ultimate cause I suppose, with other factors mentioned above my post as proximate causes. One needs to know how to utilize the resource, and to have the incentive to use it, economically and culturally. A lot of knowledge was lost after the Romans retreated, and coal is, even if more energy dense, more polluting than wood, for ordinary urban heating purposes and thus in less use.

Looking forward, Germany started industrializing some time after, and China is now reducing their coal-dependence. Now we are asking how India will industrialize without coal - underlining the importance of energy in industrialization.

Here's a good book on it, "Triumph of the West" by Roberts.

1) Outlaw slavery

2) There is no step two

That's a very simplistic (bit naive IMHO) POV.

I agree it's simplistic, but that's not particularly overly naive. The kickstart of the industrial revolution very much benefited from the disappearance of a large "free" labor source, and it was probably one of the primary social factors that worked in conjunction with the technological foundations at the time.

When & where do you think the Industrial Revolution happened?

Started late 18th century, after several decades of European countries and US states abolishing slavery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_abolition_of_slave...). Why, when do you think it happened?

Serfdom was completely ended in England 200 years before the Industrial Revolution, and while slaves were still present in England, they were never a significant part of the labor pool. What other conditions had to be met, or is it simply a matter of waiting two centuries after eliminating slaves/serfs from the labor pool?

England, like many of the European powers, vastly benefited from the slavery in the Americas through trade. Former English territories such as South Carolina (it was theirs for a century leading up to the Revolutionary War) or Georgia, were aggressive slave states and England was heavily responsible for that condition. England was the largest slave trader in the 18th century, as such the foundations of slavery particularly in the colonies were overwhelmingly their responsibility. England's wealthy slave owners were still very active in the slave trade well into the 19th century (into the 1830s). Their direct role in the slave trade, as such, didn't cease until about 50-60 years prior to the industrial revolution (their indirect role, responsibility and benefit extends far longer than that).

European powers outsourced their slavery to the Americas, directly funding, operating and protecting it, while feigning morality about it at home.

My point was that it sounds likely that something like the industrial revolution would happen after the abolishment of slavery, when there's more pressure on people to be inventive. Not that it has to happen immediately

Why then did it not happen after the Black Death decimated Europe?

indeed, if you look at how long it took for segregation to happen, centuries seems a good measure of delayed effect.

The most obvious example of the negative influence of slavery on industrialization is the split of the early US into free and slave economies, and the near complete failure of the slave economy to industrialize.

I'm not saying the elimination of slavery/serfdom isn't a necessary precursor; I just don't think it was a sufficient condition. What is the complete set of necessary and sufficient preconditions to have an Industrial Revolution?

I don't know if this is a complete set, but:

1. economic freedom

2. printing press

3. a view of the universe that it follows rules that can be discovered and modeled in the small

4. the scientific method

5. protection of property rights, enforcement of contracts, rule of law rather than corruption

> economic freedom

China certainly supports that premise. The before and after on their shift toward economic liberalization, is something beyond dramatic. A 50 fold expansion of their economy in a mere three decades after Deng Xiaoping began the liberalization.

It's also interesting to note that wealthier resource nations that heavily lack economic freedom such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela (formerly semi-wealthy in their case), also mostly lack modern industrialization and have routinely failed to develop their economies.

Russia is another example of this in action. Putin will continually fail to see high level economic development under his regime, as the nation almost entirely lacks economic freedom. The primary means by which Russia can expand its economy under his oppressive rule, is through natural resource prices moving higher (which accounted for most of Russia's economic gains from 2001-2013, leading up to the price of oil imploding in 2014 and sparking a terrible recession there). Russia's GDP in 1991 was $518 billion (when the price of oil was $20). It was $1.28 trillion for 2016. Inflation adjusted (much less further adjusting for the higher real oil prices today), they've made very little self-sustaining economic progress, while burning through vast energy resources.

The USSR is a powerful counterexample. In 1914, Russia was a backwards agrocentric economy that was one of the poorest of Europe. 25 years later, it's an industrial juggernaut on par with, or perhaps even (especially as feared by many at the time) better than the US.

It's not, it actually proves the point extremely well. The USSR's industrial base was built by foreign industrial firms, including from Germany and the US. The USSR then proceeded to nationalize most of it (see: the German Junkers aviation company; German manganese mining + US industrialist W. Averill Harriman; British and US gold mining firms in the 1920s; and dozens more, all victims of bait & switch Russian nationalizations). The Soviets would have foreign industrialists build what they could not, usually after running an industry into the ground, and then they would turn around and nationalize it back.

Or consider the largest hydro dam in the world at the time, built at Dnieprostroi by Americans (designed by Hugh Cooper). The turbines were supplied by America as well. That single dam increased Soviet power production five fold. The Soviets crowed about that achievement, and they had nothing to do with it.

Steel plants, tractor plants, the list goes on and on, built by American industrialists. Then either nationalized or otherwise proclaimed to be the great product of Soviet industrialization.

They did that frequently between 1914 and the 1930s. The Soviets also never repaid the US lend-lease transfers, which would be worth several hundred billion dollars today.

To make things even worse, during the 1920s, the US and Western European powers subsidized the USSR with vast food aid, as they starved their people and exported their grain production to countries such as Germany (so while the US and others were supplying aid, they were simultaneously profiting by selling their domestic crops into other markets). During that time millions of Russians starved to death.

The USSR was not even remotely close to the industrial scale of the US in 1940. The US had economic output greater than Germany + the UK + France + the USSR by 1940.

This is a good article on it from 1988:

"How America Helped Build The Soviet Machine"


Who cares if you have to starve a few tens of millions of peasants to death to drag them into the industrial age?

The British certainly didn't, roughly thirty million Indians starved during their industrial revolution.

Since the US heavily supplied the USSR in WW2, I don't think they were industrially on par with the US.

As a counterpoint, the cotton that fueled the textiles industry that drove early industrialization was entirely dependent on slavery. There is no doubt that the cotton gin was the primary economic factor in making slavery in the South profitable, and it's very arguable that, without the massive expansion of cotton cultivation, the textile industry in the early 1800s couldn't have grown as much and couldn't have driven industrialization.

This ignores the massive amounts of "free" labor that they were receiving from places like India and the Americas. That was a far larger pool than any amount of domestic slavery most of Europe had in previous generations.

And England didn't finally ban slave labor abroad until 1833 ... after the Industrial Revolution; arguably, they continued to benefit from the defacto slavery of colonialism until the 20th century.

And this is obviously why the industrial revolution happened in the Achaemenid Empire.

I think the printing press and a patent system were both rather important. Otherwise it takes to long for advances to get well known.

Ancient Rome could have had hot air balloons:


Rome was still primarily a slave/servant based economy, and one based on expansion and conquest. They lacked the mathematical and scientific foundations to radically change metallurgy, chemistry, and the other basics of industry. This article focuses a lot on economic possibilities and social change necessary for a revolution, while largely ignoring larger issues.

You cant have an industrial revolution without then revolutionary power of modern industry. Good concrete and slaves fanning fires to heat water isn’t that.

In the three-segment documentary "Meet the Romans: Citizens of the Empire" (by Mary Beard, historian, available in Amazon Prime Video ... see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meet_the_Romans_with_Mary_Bear...) I was struck by:

+ ... how frequently the enslavement of the remnants of conquered peoples (slavery wasn't so much race-based as what "naturally" happened to loser-nations/cultures) led to large numbers of those people eventually being emancipated by their owners and becoming full-fledged Roman citizens

+ ... how seemingly everyone in Rome defined themselves by their industry, by their profession. Most epitaphs on graves and tombs identified occupants by name, place of origin, some brief and sometimes humorous quip about their circumstances, where applicable mentioned their former owners pre-emancipation, and then >>> mentioned what they did for a living <<< ... people defined themselves by their work

While not germane to the larger arguments that probably will happen in these threads here, I was struck by social mobility beyond slavery, and what was core to people's identity. (I'm sure you've heard people complaining about modern society and industry with " ... people are human BEings not human DOings " -- Romans were all about the DOing).

While the Romans may not have had the conditions for a scientific/engineering/tinkering revolution to be a force multiplier in industry, they had a hard-working mindset.

EDIT: added Wikipedia link, corrections based on OP

> Rome was still primarily a slave/servant based economy, and one based on expansion and conquest. They lacked the mathematical and scientific foundations to radically change metallurgy, chemistry, and the other basics of industry.

The book the article is inspired by[0] is an alternate history set during the reign of Augustus. It takes as its point of departure the capture of Archimedes of Syracuse -- instead of being killed, he is brought back to Rome.

Note that this is the mid-Republic period, before the dynamics of conquest and slavery completely dominated the Roman economy.

The book is written by Helen Dale, who set out to write a legal alt-history, not an economics alt-history per se. She's got the background for it: she's an award-winning novelist, studied classics at Oxford and Roman law at Edinburgh. My gut feeling is that any objection you have, she's thought about already.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Wicked-Book-One-Rules/dp/0994...

Are you arguing slavery prevents industrial resolutions?

Didn't they coexist in some parts of the world?

Or is it the way slaves were used?

Can you clarify to contrast Roman and US experiences?

I’m saying that in Rome, slaves/servants were used the way we use machines and conveniences. A lot of their impressive “Tech” amounted to The Turk... brute force and a person working it all. They had hot baths because they had genuinely impressive concrete and because they had humans tending fires to heat them. There was no drive to move past that, there was no cotton gin, no real science to work with either.

> Are you arguing slavery prevents industrial resolutions?

> Didn't they coexist in some parts of the world?

The American Civil War is an example of the two coexisting in the same country

The free states industrialized, and the slave states did not.

I mean... that ended with the devastation of the slave states.

Could such advances have been possible if fueled by an extremely wealthy family? It only takes one person w/ resources & ambition to say "I want <something>" to kickstart a movement.

Say Marcus Licinius Crassus [1], Roman bajillionaire, dreams of a steam-powered engine in 73 BC, 20-ish years before his death. And instead of duking it out with Spartacus, Crassus decides to make building a steam engine his singular focus in life. In the best of cases, could he have meaningfully invested in R&D that would make meaningful progress towards building a steam engine? Was R&D even a thing in that era?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcus_Licinius_Crassus

One guy building a steam engine isn’t a revolution. One guy building a steam engine and publishing a book on steam engines and having a university to train steam engine builders is.

More than that. It took a while for the telegraph to take hold because Morse couldn't explain why fast communication was necessary, and people thought his demonstrations were a scam.

I don’t know, but that family would be upending the fabric of society, and I would guess while possible, it would be risky. See: Caesar

Possibly Crassus could have gotten a toy out of it. A steam engine working enough to start an industrial revolution? I doubt it.

I think (but I am not a historian) that the Roman mind-set wasn't turned toward progress in the form of machines. I think that was because they didn't have real science. And I think that was because of their gods.

Oppenheimer, in his history of science, said that science couldn't have begun outside of Christianity. The Christian perspective was that, because God is there, and God is someone who uses reason, and God created the universe, therefore the universe could be understood through reason. That was the soil in which the scientific revolution started. But the Roman gods were too arbitrary and capricious to give any certainty of a reasonable universe, and so the Romans never developed real science (despite knowing many of the facts that Europeans knew by 1500).

The existence of thoroughly reasoned and empirical fields such as architecture (and is implementation with regards to civic engineering) in the Roman world is an obvious disproof with regards to this sort of Christian-centric worldview being a necessary factor. If they as a thinking culture believed the universe was not consistent and reliable, there is little reason to believe that the lessons learned that made Roman aqueducts stand to this day would have stuck the way they did. And, similarly, this lesson holds for societies not so comfortingly Western; there's little reason to believe that "but gods!" held back the the Chinese or the Indians, either.

The ancient world--not just Rome, but across the board--didn't have what you have chosen to provincially define as "real science" because not having the tools to build the tools to disprove theories tends to put a damper on things. Instead they had sciences based on what they could and did measure: geometry and astronomy are explicitly called out by Vitruvius as being necessary topics for an architect to understand.

I mean, hell. Greek and Roman thinkers (and, indeed, most Roman science was Greek) defined the scientific method as being a deterministic thing, induction via observation, in the first place.

Why then did Oppenheimer (not a Christian, BTW) say that science could not have begun without Christianity?

How much of your example is survivor bias? How many roman aqueducts didn't stand to this day (and in fact failed in use)? Well, we'd only know if someone made a record of it, and the record survived, or if we found the remains in an archaelogical exploration. Did they have the science to build aqueducts (and bridges, and buildings) that survived, or did they have some experience and some rules of thumb, and some of it was done well enough to survive 2 millenia?

And you point me back to the Greeks as originators of the scientific method. A quick glance at Wikipedia reveals the claim that Aristotle originated that way of thinking. But that would be the same Aristotle who claimed that it was philosophically or logically obvious that men had more teeth than women but who, despite being married twice, never actually bothered to check. (That may be to say, induction via observation is fine, but I think the real scientific method requires experimental verification, and I don't think Aristotle was very big on that.)

I can't speak about Oppenheimer, but I can speak to how we understand that scientific practice in antiquity worked as they themselves described it. Have you studied the Pythagoreans through Plato? Or read Vitruvius? This is not oh, those capricious gods! stuff, this is "what can we think about?", "how do we know what we know?", and "how does it apply?" stuff. And, when you spend time reading them, it is pretty obvious that there is no need to backfit a just-so-story of a narrative.

> Did they have the science to build aqueducts (and bridges, and buildings) that survived, or did they have some experience and some rules of thumb, and some of it was done well enough to survive 2 millenia?

What do you think the iterative process of developing those rules of thumb is, if it isn't science? If it isn't literally how science has progressed since...well...antiquity?

And if Aristotle being wrong about the observation rankles you, then Epicurus's canonics are right there, too.

The Pythagoreans? The guys who couldn't separate their geometry from their mysticism? The guys who murdered the man who proved the existence of irrational numbers for (essentially) heresy? Whose "how do we know what we know" was at least sometimes "because mysticism"? They grappled with the question, I'll grant you. But their answer left a fair amount to be desired.

> What do you think the iterative process of developing those rules of thumb is, if it isn't science?

Well, it's technology. We observe that, if we want to build a bridge for an aqueduct, if it's higher than X feet, we have to build the bridge in layers, or else it will fall down. And we can't have more than Y layers, or it will fall down anyway. That's observation, and engineering, but it isn't science.

To me, science is: 1) Systematic observation, 2) The search for regularities in the observations, 3) Proposing an explanation for the observed regularities, and 4) Testing the proposed explanation.

Without that fourth step, it isn't science. And I don't think that "we can't build higher than Y layers" should be the end point of "proposing an explanation".

> And if Aristotle being wrong about the observation rankles you...

What rankles me isn't that Aristotle was wrong. It's that he never made the observation. He stated something that seemed obviously right (to him), but he never checked it in any way, even though he had the means to do so in his own house. (And no, I don't think Epicurus is the answer to what Aristotle did wrong.)

Not sure why Oppie would say that, given how much more Muslim scientists contributed to science during the dark ages and the inquisition.

Up until quite late, metallurgy was more experimentation and experience than scientific practice. If they'd decently understood their materials, there probably wouldn't have been so many people injured or killed by exploding boilers.

It says there's a few key technological innovations that the novel posits.

Related topic: could the Romans have usefully practiced public key encryption, say for very small key sizes?

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